So you want to know how to get your work accepted by literary magazines?
Firstly, follow the directions. As tedious as it sounds, read every bit of the Submission Guidelines (Writer’s Guidelines, Submissions, Submit) page. I even encourage you to read any About page you can find. Study the mission of the magazine/website. Pay attention to the parameters given to you for submission.
Read material the magazine has accepted and published. Sometimes this is tricky, because magazines want you to subscribe before they’ll let you read anything. You can get around this by reading any excerpts offered on the site. Sometimes they will post a part of the piece to entice readers to subscribe. Sometimes they don’t. In this event, you’ll be taking a risk if you submit blindly. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t. There are some facets of writing that continue to be the darlings of the literary world. If you write realistic fiction of any kind, your chances of being accepted change drastically. Genre writers, writers who experiment with form and structure, and those who employ elements of slipstream and magical realism are at a disadvantage by submitting blind.
Now you’re probably saying: I don’t have time for this shit. Then, you don’t have time to become a writer. There, we’ve solved that mess.
But what do I look for when I read these magazines? Look for content: are these pieces largely contemporary or do they deal with historical moments? Do they deal with specific places? Look for genre: are there elements of genre in these pieces? Look for style: are these pieces voicey, traditional, experimental, long, or short? Look for sentence and paragraph length (I’m not kidding). Look for any repetitions of plot and theme. Finally, compare these elements to your own piece. Will your piece differ from the aesthetic of the magazine? If yes, don’t submit it there. If your piece seems to align with a good deal of the aesthetic elements of the magazine, submit it!
I’ll give you an example of two different places to submit: McSweeney’s publishes satire. From their blog posts, nonfiction pieces, to their fiction, McSweeney’s is an outlet for comedic (and primarily satiric) literature. In this case, there is no doubt. They are transparent in their intentions, and the work they choose to publish is easily identifiable from the rest. But not all can be distinguished so well. American Short Fiction is a more elusive beast. Upon a review of the excerpts from four or so stories, their aesthetic becomes more clear. They seem to prefer more traditional pieces of both contemporary and non-contemporary value (though they all feel nostalgic in a way). They also seem to prefer third person narratives. There’s nary a first person piece in sight.
Tips for cover letters:
Address the letter by the name of either the main editor (Editor-in-Chief) or the name of the editor that handles specific submissions (Fiction Editor, Poetry Editor, Nonfiction Editor). Be aware that these positions and the faces that inhabit them are ever-changing. So always check before you submit. Never assume the same person is working in the same area or at all. If you’re concerned you’ll get the wrong person (by some change in leadership) then simply put Editor. I’ve found by being a reader and also submitting my own work, that addressing the cover letter with the first name of the editor in question gets particular attention. At the magazine where I currently read, if a cover letter seems in any way to indicate a personal relationship with our editor, we are to flag it. Flagging it means it gets to the editor faster for review. As a submitter, my pieces seem to get reviewed much more quickly when I title the cover letter with an editor’s name (or maybe I’m just imagining it, you never know). My rejection letters also tend to seem more personalized (as if someone actually took the time to write it rather than copy and paste a form).
Your cover letter should never be more than about two hundred words – in my own personal opinion. Any longer and you’ve added unnecessary information or you’ve begun to sound arrogant. You don’t need to list the one hundred places you’ve been published. Only list the top three to five. If you’ve never been published, don’t mention that. If you’ve only been published once, make sure you do mention it. Never indicate the amount of times you’ve been published if it could be to your disadvantage.
Your cover letter should in some way indicate that you are grateful for the reader’s time. A short, “I’m honored (excited) to share this piece with you” will do.
If you’re an undergrad, don’t mention that. If you’re a master’s student, only mention it you have nothing else to say (some editors and readers are just snobs; it’s a sad reality). However, keep in mind that if you’ve completed an MFA program, that is a credit to your name.
Don’t lie. That’s really all I have to say on that.
I’d like to say don’t be boring, especially in your first few pages, but experience has taught me that boring is a literary genre and one that prevails in the publishing arena. Perhaps that’s just the consequence of preferring to write epic fantasy and science fiction – a story about someone brushing their teeth and contemplating existence seems dull. To illustrate my point: I once wrote two short stories (that are indeed realistic fiction), and I wrote them in the span of three hours. I didn’t even look back at them before I submitted (mistake). They were both accepted by the same magazine. Now, the story I’ve been writing for five years which is arguably speculative fiction continues to be rejected.
The world of publishing is a precarious place, both predictable and yet wildly unpredictable in its taste. Never become too discouraged by the onslaught of rejection. Simply become smarter about where, when, and why you submit!
P.S. Devise is currently seeking contributors to examine literary magazines for their aesthetic preferences (think The Review Review). Those interested should email firstname.lastname@example.org with a cover letter, resume, and relevant writing samples to apply.